By Rasika Jayakody –
Today marks the 10th death anniversary of former Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. Ironically, it also marks the fourth anniversary of President Maithripala Sirisena’s ascension to power.
Lasantha’s killers are yet to be brought to justice. Despite extensive investigations and arduous attempts by the CID, they still roam free and enjoy absolute impunity.
Much has been written about Wickremetunge’s death and the circumstances leading to his assassination. Journalists, politicians, civil society activists and citizens, time and time again, have stressed the need for uncovering the truth and apprehending those who ordered the killing.
But there is a general acceptance in society that while the CID officers handling the investigation have done a commendable job thus far, it is the political powers that are standing in the way of justice. President Maithripala Sirisena, for instance, had no qualms about censuring the Police for pursuing action against “war heroes” who allegedly committed heinous crimes at the behest of their political bosses.
However, it is also important to look at the larger scheme of things as we commemorate the 10th death anniversary of Lasantha who sacrificed his life in the name of media freedom at the darkest hour of Sri Lanka’s democracy.
As the current government came to power, it promised action on those who perpetrated crimes on journalists and those who sanctioned them — the arrow and the archer. The investigations began in 2015 and centred around three main attacks; namely the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the assault on Upali Tennakoon and the abduction of Keith Noyahr.
All three were high-profile journalists with a wide network of political and social connections. In addition to his role as the Editor of the Rivira and Divaina newspapers, Tennakoon was a founding member of the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka (EGOSL) and a prominent figure at the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI). Noyahr, the former Deputy Editor of The Nation newspaper, had also equally strong standing in the journalistic circles.
As a result, the cases involving them drew the attention of society and became matters of public interest. Many influential parties, including international media organizations and foreign diplomats, followed the progress of investigations with keen interest and nudged the government from time to time expedite the process. It has now become evident that even this level of heightened public interest has not exerted sufficient pressure on the government to bring the culprits to book.
In this context, it is farcical to assume that justice will be served to other “less-influential” journalists who have come under attack by both identified and unidentified parties. All these attacks have been brushed under the carpet and there is not even a semblance of an attempt to uncover the truth. Even the media have turned a blind eye to these cases, conveniently glossing over the plights of their former colleagues who paid the ultimate price for their work. Journalist and former General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association Poddala Jayantha was abducted in a white van in June 2009 – nearly five months after the attacks on Wickrematunge and Tennakoon. He was tortured and left to die on the streets.
While it was clear that a quasi-military gang was behind Jayantha’s abduction, no probe has been carried out to ascertain who ordered the attack. In 2017, Jayantha returned to Sri Lanka and lodged a complaint with the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) over the incident. The investigation, as we know, is yet to see the light of day.
A number of Tamil journalists including Paranirupasingham Devakumar, Balanadarajah Iyer, Dharmaratnam Sivaram, Mylvaganam Nimalarajan, Paranirupasingham Devakumar, Relangi Selvarajah, Selvarajah Rajeewarnam and Subhash Chandrabose were killed during the period between 2000 and 2015.
Most of these murders have been conveniently ignored by successive governments and no serious attempt has been made to uncover what led to their assassinations. Not even the media remember their names or call for investigations into their murders.
It is clear, as we come upon yet another anniversary of the death of one of the most high-profile murders of a journalist in Sri Lanka, that all of us, collectively as a society, have neglected our duty to demand that justice is served. In doing so, we have failed the very men and women who used their voices to champion our own collective causes.
The political climate in the country is far from favourable – rifts exist within the political alliance and there is no unity in policy. In such a scenario, it would be difficult to imagine that the families of those journalists who were so brutally assaulted and killed will ever find answers to the questions foremost on their minds: will the perpetrators ever be brought to book?
But while memories fade, hope fails to diminish and solitary voices, such as ours, will keep calling for justice, even as the years roll on by.
*Rasika Jayakody is a former Editor of Daily News and a former Editor-in-Chief of Asian Mirror. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org